What is systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)?

Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus) is a chronic (long-lasting) autoimmune disease that can affect many parts of the body, including the:

  • Skin.
  • Joints.
  • Heart.
  • Lungs.
  • Kidneys.
  • Brain.

Lupus happens when the immune system, which normally helps protect the body from infection and disease, attacks its own tissues. This attack causes inflammation and, in some cases, permanent tissue damage.

If you have lupus, you may have times of illness (flares) and times of wellness (remission). Lupus flares can be mild to serious,and they do not follow a pattern. However, with treatment, many people with lupus can manage the disease.

Who gets systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)?

Anyone can get lupus, but women are more likely to get the disease than men. Most often it happens in people between ages 15 and 45 years.  

Lupus is more common in African Americans and people of American Indian and Asian descent than in white people. If you have a family member with lupus or another autoimmune disease, you may be more likely to develop lupus.

What are the symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)?

The symptoms of lupus are different for each person who has the disease. Symptoms may:

  • Be mild or more severe.
  • Affect one area of your body.
  • Affect many areas of your body.
  • Come and go.
  • Change over time.

Some symptoms happen when the disease causes inflammation in organs. Symptoms of lupus can include:

  • Arthritis, causing painful and swollen joints and morning stiffness.
  • Fevers.
  • Feeling tired often (fatigue).
  • Rashes.
  • Hair loss.
  • Sores, which are usually painless, in the nose and mouth.
  • Change of color in the fingers and toes – blue-purplish, white, or red – from cold and stress (Raynaud’s phenomenon).
  • Swollen glands.
  • Swelling in the legs or around the eyes.
  • Pain when breathing deeply or lying down.
  • Headaches, dizziness, depression, confusion, or seizures.
  • Stomach pain.

In some people with lupus, inflammation may lead to other problems with the kidneys, heart, or lungs.

What causes systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)?

No one knows what causes lupus. Certain factors may trigger your immune system, causing the disease. These factors include:

  • Genes.
  • The environment (such as exposure to viral infections, sunlight, certain medications, and smoking).
  • Other influences related to the immune system.